Spanking your kids is against the law


Corporal punishment at home in South Africa is illegal. We give you the low-down on this new law and alternative ways in which parents can discipline their children – without breaking the law.

By Ashraf Booley

The Bill of Rights, criminal law, Domestic Violence Act of 1998 and Children’s Act have long been in place to guard children in South Africa against corporal punishment. According to the South African criminal law, spanking a child – whether yours or someone else’s – is considered assault. Anyone found guilty of this offence could previously plead the common law defence of “moderate” and “reasonable” chastisement.

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This means that, in the past, it was then up to the state to decide whether the extent fell outside of lawful bounds or not. This is no longer the case – it is now officially unlawful for parents to beat their children. This is because any form of punishment has been found to be inconsistent with the constitution. In fact, this common law defence infringed on children’s rights to be protected from maltreatment, abuse and dignity, as per Section 28 of The Bill of Rights.

Clinical psychologist Nazneen Firfirey says children learn more through joy and love, than pain and punishment. “Essentially, ill-discipline occurs when there is a breakdown in the relationship and communication channels between the child and parent. And, if this foundation can be built on mutual respect and understanding, there won’t be any need to turn for punishment.


The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child defines corporal punishment as “any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light.” This includes spanking, slapping, kicking, shaking, scratching, pinching, and pulling of hair or ears. If found guilty of this offence in court, a parent could be charged

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The new law has sparked a lot of controversy and debate, and has been met with a mixed bag of reactions by parents, organisations and religious leaders. According to non-profit Christian organisation Freedom of Religion South Africa, the scriptures stipulate “reasonable” disciplinary measures. However, it is advised that religious parents should abide by secular laws and place the interests of their children above their religious beliefs.


Studies have found that physical punishment, however ‘mild’, has a negative impact on a child’s mental and physical health. In fact, there is a causal relationship between chastisement and the development of aggressive behaviour in children. Nazneen recommends three positive and effective methods to discipline your child, without resorting to physical punishment:

  1. Have non-negotiable boundaries 

After teaching a child what not to do or when a child oversteps a particular boundary or rule, there should be appropriate consequences and repercussions, says Nazneen. “For example, when a child fails to do their homework without a reasonable explanation, then their laptop/cell phone/TV privileges should be taken away for a period of time in accordance with the misbehaviour. This teaches your child the causal relationship that every choice they make has a consequence – pleasant or unpleasant.”

  1. Use misbehaviour as a learning opportunity

When your child misbehaves, try to understand the meaning behind the behaviour with empathy and compassion. “Engage your child in a discussion about what they have done and reframe the problematic behaviour. For example, when a child does not do all their chores, you can focus on how well they have managed to do other tasks such as making up their bed and how doing chores teaches us all about responsibility and taking pride in the things we can do well.”

  1. Employ a reward system

At the beginning of each year, sit your child down and have a discussion about what their academic, sporting and personal goals are for the year. “If at the end of the year they achieve a particular goal, they are entitled to choose an appropriate reward. However, if they fail, then the reward is withheld. For example, if a child fails a school term, their sporting privileges can be withheld until such a time that their results show improvement.”.


In a country where child abuse is among the highest in the world, many experts and children’s rights activists say this is a victory for children. But some parents are still vehement in the ideology “my child, my choice”. With the removal of the common law defence, however, parents will be forced to put their personal and religious beliefs aside, so it’s well worth exploring non-physical and non-violent forms of discipline against children.